The television format known as the mini-series has been around for many years ushered in with the success of projects like ‘Roots’ and ‘Rich man, Poor Man’. The key factor as to why this type of programming works out so amazingly well is it is liberated from requirement to keep the story open ended to allow multiple seasons but it spans several evenings provide a significantly longer time to elaborate on the story at hand. It is more than just the extra time afforded by the mini-series; the most important element in this method of storytelling, what matters most is the usual source material that provides the story. In most cases mini-series are derived from nice, thick examples of popular literature. With novels like these the story is told with exquisite detail, painted with a fine brush. In the case of ‘Shogun’, the topic for consideration here, the novel by James Clavell was so rich in detail depicting a strange, exotic culture through the eyes of the proverbial stranger in a strange land that a couple of hours for a standard film just could not do proper justice to this story. It also would have a great disservice to both the fans and the author to attempt to alter it into the open ended format of a network series. This mini-series was so successful and reasonably faithful to the novel that is spearheaded one of the better trends to hit television; the historical saga. After taking the audience back in time to feudal Japan other historically based novels found their way to television. This type of programming gave the audience credit for literacy, intelligence and a normal attention span. True to this mandate ‘Shogun’ remains one of the finest examples of the format and endures as truly classic television. It’s difficult to realize that it has been thirty years since many of us arranged our schedules ensuring we would be home and on the couch for each of those five nights in September, 1980. In honor of this milestone Paramount Home Entertainment as re-released its original full length DVD edition. The nine hour original running time is split over five discs, each containing what had been a single evening of entertainment. The fifth disc holds the extras including some rather well made behind the scenes documentary. As far as I can ascertain this is the same mastering as used in the original release right down to the same UPC number. If it is not part of your collection now is the time to correct that omission.
Migrating Clavell’s bestselling novel into the teleplay used here was accomplished by Eric Bercovici. The most difficult aspect of this project had to be deciding which plot threads would be included and which had to be stricken to accommodate differences in the visual medium of TV. While it would be impossible for every nuance of the novel to make it into this presentation Bercovici, along with director Jerry London managed to retain the overall integrity of the work giving the audience the impact of the original story. Jerry London built most of his career on televisions series ranging from ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ to ‘Strong Medicine’ while Bercovici would continue on to script another Asian bases epic, ‘Nobel House’, which also started as a bestselling book by James Clavell. This was a rather recent method to tell a story so back then men like this were trailblazers in the industry. Stylistically, there is a more leisurely pacing permitted. The audience is given ample opportunity to get to know the principles becoming emotionally vested in the fate they face.
The central character is John Blackthorne (Richard Chamberlain), a Protestant Englishman working as the Master Pilot for the Dutch merchant ship the Erasmus. They took the covert path through the covert Straights of Magellan to the virtually unknown land of Japan. He and a portion of the crew are captured by a local warlord thrusting Blackthorne into a completely different culture than anything he could imagine. He finds Japan beautiful, enticing and brutally deadly. There are numerous factors that contribute to the overall appeal of the story. First and most important is the perspective offered through the vantage point of Blackthorne. He is a well educated 17th century European which means although he is we versed in navigation he is still bond to superstition and religious injunctions. He can calculate his position in open ocean but is afraid that taking a bath will result in illness. The blend of science and faith makes this character the ideal surrogate perspective for the audience as he is plunged headlong into a society so foreign to his own he can barely find any foundation to identify with it. Though circumstances, fate and frequently dumb luck he become entwined in both an international power play instigated by kings and clerics as well as the loom threat of civil war within Japan. John, now called Anjin-san, is taken into the household and confidence of the most powerful warlords in the country; Yoshi Toranaga (Toshirō Mifune), Lord of the Kwanto. As noble and powerful as he might be there are several factions out to kill him as he and the other lords compete to achieve the ultimate goal; Shogun, the military dictator of Japan. There has to be romance which is nicely provided by one of the Lord’s consorts, Lady Mariko Buntaro-Toda (Yōko Shimada).
Contain in this mini-series is every element of a great piece of entertainment you could want. There are fast paced action scenes mixed in along with softly lit romance. A bit of comic relief following a tense moment keeps the pacing perfect never letting your interest falter. The acting can lean towards the corny at times but that only comes across as part of the fun of getting into this, they don’t make epics like this anymore but this classic is something you will enjoy many times. The video reprocesses well to 1080p on a modern player giving bright, well balanced colors. The audio is 5.1 but reveals its broadcast television origins sounding a bit flat.